In their first appearance at Strathmore, the Sultans of String sold out the house at the Mansion at Strathmore, and swept their audience away on a musical adventure they will not soon forget. Each of the musicians was exemplary in their own right; woven together, they presented an exquisite and entrancing musical soundscape. Their music was innovative and of extraordinary richness, avoiding the oft heard pitfall of world music that sounds like a mash-up, not an integration, of different musical traditions.
The Sultan’s musical journey contained homage to many parts of Canada as well as North Africa, the Middle East, and Gypsy jazz. Specific favorites among the Canadian pieces were those about life in the Arctic, a sandbar island far off the eastern coast of Nova Scotia, and another about Luna, the killer whale who, in legend, embodied the spirit of an aboriginal leader. I recommend a personal introduction to the Sultans of String in which founder, Chris McKhool, talks about their band and the aspirations present in their latest endeavor, working with a full orchestra
The Sultans of String began with Chris McKhool on six-stringed violin and vocals, and Kevin Laliberté on flamenco guitar. The group was later completed with the addition of Drew Birston on electric and acoustic bass and Rosendo “Chendy” Léon on percussion, pamas, drums, and jaleo. McKhool and Laliberté wrote all but two of the compositions, one of which was written and performed by Laliberté.
Pushing past their instruments’ typical range and tenor, each member of the Sultans transformed their sound to reflect the chord structure, tempo and unique timbre to be found at the cultural roots of each piece. Listening to the variety of sounds and feelings evoked by McKhool’s six string violin was indicative of the tremendous talent present. His use of electronic manipulation of the violin’s output added another dimension to his playing.
Kevin Laliberté’s mastery of his flamenco guitar’s range and coloration, presently astounding, was pushed just a little bit further by the solo performance of his composition, Hypnotica. Although it is common to see some version of a bass guitar, Drew Birston also illustrated his strength and versatility in changing from the creation of whale sounds in “Luna” to the leader of a hootenanny in “Emerald Swing.”
The musicians seemed totally delighted to be performing together, with each others contribution both as close friends and as artists. fellow musicians, complete with the talent and depth to perform a solo concert. The Sultans of String also encouraged audience participation from syncopated clapping to singing along with their rendition of “Heart of Gold,” originally written by Canadian Neil Young in the early 1970s. Before one of the Middle-Eastern inspired pieces, McKhool invited anyone able to join the band onstage and to belly dance on top of the piano. There were no takers.
In homage to different regions of Canada, “Rainflower” and “Kitchen Party,” and later, “Sable Island”, “Josie” and “Luna,” the ensemble created very different soundscapes: “Rainflower” seemed a love song to Arcadia; “Kitchen Party” brought to mind a rural farmhouse in a tight-knit community, and the enthusiastic audience clapped loudly along.
McKhool and Laliberté created their own unique sound in Sable Island, based on the story of shipwrecks with ‘Sable Island,’ a sandbar about 120 miles east of Nova Scotia, by combined sounds of a rough sea, groaning shipwrecks in which the vessel broke apart and all crew members were lost, and the freedom of the wild horses who survived the shipwrecks and who still populate the island today.
“Luna” perfectly showcased the musicians’ ability to coax new sounds out of their instruments and emblematic of the way the Sultans told a musical story complete from beginning to end. “Luna” is based on the tale of an Aboriginal chief who said he would come back as a whale after he died so he could continue to pass down generations of accumulated teachings. Four days after he died, a killer whale, Luna, appeared off the coast of British Columbia.
The piece started with a pitch-perfect replication of the vocalizations of killer whales recorded in that region, and ended with the sound of marine mammals frolicking in the waves. Along the way, it suggested the voice of the aboriginal chief reincarnated as Luna, bringing back the ancestral teachings he had promised his people.
“Stomping at the Rex” was a lively tribute to the men who joined together to play gypsy jazz at The Rex Jazz & Blues Bar on weekend afternoons in Toronto where The Sultan of Strings perform on a regular basis. Leon’s improvised percussion solo held everyone, including fellow Sultans, literally in the palms of his hands. I was mesmerized by his thoughtful use of percussive instruments ranging from soft hand-clapping and tibetan bells to bass drum and Middle Eastern instruments to support, rather than overpower, the ensemble. I have never before experienced the gentleness with which Chendy Leon produced percussive sounds.
The evening also included many pieces supported by the traditional music McKhool’s Arab roots.” El-Kahira,” utilizing traditional Arabic rhythms from North Africa, drew a musical picture of the bustling of a bazaar in the Maghreb and emergence into the slower-paced dusty village of which it was the center. McKhool added a particularly stunning component through electronic manipulation of the output of his six-string violin.
“Road to Kfarmishki” channeled both the excitement and memories of McKhool and his father’s journey to visit his paternal village of Kfar Mishki, Lebanon. At first, one is lead through the excitement of the journey along rough dusty roads. After reaching the village, excitement turned to exploration as the two find McKhool’s father’s closest cousin and the stone house in which the grandfather lived until he stowed away on a ship to America in 1903. The excitement and fulfillment of the journey ended with old memories stirred by the visit, as heard in the bittersweet closing of the composition.
Though primarily an instrumental group, the Sultans also have wonderful singing voices. McKhool sang a heartfelt rendition in the personal “A Place to Call Home.” This was immediately followed by enthusiastic audience sing-along of Neil Young’s 1974 hit, “Heart of Gold.” The strong baritone voice with which bassist Drew Briston lead the sing-along was in stark contrast to the sweet tenor of McKhool’s “A Place to Call Home.”
“Auyuittuq Sunrise,” the last piece on the set list was a perfect return to the theme of tremendous heterogeneity throughout the world and within Canada. The music expressed everything about the many sunrises I have seen in the Arctic and could never find the words to explain. The glorious openness of sunrise in the northern regions, as well as the many terrains found there, were embodied in this composition. The only problem with “Auyuittuq Sunrise“ was that it left me wanting more and more of the many soundscapes and images evoked by the Sultans of String.
Throughout the evening, it was clear why Chris McKhool and Sultans of String have been nominated for, and often won awards for their song-writing and folk albums. In 2013, The Sultans of String won the Canadian Festival and Events Performer of the Year, and, in 2012, Canadian Folk Music Award for World Group of the Year. Chris McKhool was also awarded the Queen’s Diamond Jubilee Medal for his work in building community through music and his general contributions to Canada.
Sultans of String have recorded four CDs that cover the gamut of the music they love, showcasing the eloquence of their sound when performing as a small ensemble, to a fuller sound when performing with large orchestras, as you can hear in the videos below.
Running time: Two and one half hours, including a thirty-minute intermission.
Sultans of String played for one night only on December 5, 2013 at The Mansion at Strathmore –5301 Tuckerman Lane, in North Bethesda, MD. For future events at Strathmore, check their calendar of events.
Sultans of String website.